New Downtown Memphis gallery gives new meaning to underground art

Tops Gallery is a small art space located in the basement of the Jack Robinson Gallery.

Photo by Mike Brown, The Commercial Appeal // Buy this photo

Tops Gallery is a small art space located in the basement of the Jack Robinson Gallery.

Tops Gallery is a small art space located in the basement of the Jack Robinson Gallery.

Photo by Mike Brown, The Commercial Appeal

Tops Gallery is a small art space located in the basement of the Jack Robinson Gallery.

Matt Ducklo brings new and literal meaning to the concept of underground art with his recently opened Tops Gallery.

Named for reasons ironic and hopeful, Tops Gallery occupies the former coal and furnace chambers in the basement of the industrial loft building at South Front and Huling that is home to several businesses owned by Dan Oppenheimer, including Rainbow Stained Glass Studio, Scale Models Unlimited and Jack Robinson Gallery.

"I was working with Dan," Ducklo said, "and I saw this space back at the far end of the basement, and I thought it was beautiful, though it was covered with coal dust."

The first exhibition at Tops, a group of large landscape and cave photographs by Victoria Sambunaris, closes this weekend with a reception for the artist Friday, 6 to 8 p.m.

Ducklo, 38, is a photographer who credits part of his involvement with the arts to Peter Bowman, the art teacher at Memphis University School for many years.

"One of the great things about Peter was that he was an example of a practicing artist who was serious about what he did," he said.

Ducklo attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and though he took various courses in art, it was a class in photography that clinched his career. "I know instantly that photography was what I wanted to do."

After UT, Ducklo went to Yale for graduate school and from there, in 1999, to New York, "with all the expectations that artists have when they go to New York." He developed a successful career as a commercial and architectural photographer — he had an exhibition at the Powerhouse in Memphis in 2007 — and as a film printer for major magazine clients.

All of that became "not so viable" once the recession started, and in December 2009, he returned to Memphis, where he has been living at what he described as "an incredibly low level" doing freelance work.

Why a gallery and why in a former coal bin that required months of tedious work to renovate?

"I had been talking to John Weeden" — former director of UrbanArt and now a freelance art consultant and curator — "about opening a space, because we agreed that there was a niche to be filled in Memphis. I had organized an exhibition at Memphis College of Art, and that was fun and rewarding. I knew that it would be hard to open a commercial space, but I also knew that it had to be a great and interesting space. And then I found this place." (Weeden is not connected with Tops.)

"This place" consists of two rooms, the former coal bin and furnace room, connected by a rounded opening smashed, at some point, through the thick concrete walls. With its multitude of rough concrete walls, jutting piers, steeply angled coal shoot and semi-beamed ceilings, Tops is definitely urban-industrial chic, half ruin, half boutique.

It took several rounds of pressure-washing to remove most of the dust, dirt and grime from the coal room, but, said Ducklo, "the cleaner it got, the less compelling it felt. I was taking away what had attracted me to the space in the first place. The dirt held it together, but of course you can't show art in a dirty environment." Not to worry; the character of the place shines through.

Ducklo and two helpers not only cleaned the rooms, but they removed a huge beam, cut away pipes and painted the ceiling. The blindingly white epoxy floor in the former coal bin was laid down by Clay Gott of American Construction Co. in Memphis.

"I'm thrilled that Matt has done this," said Oppenheimer, an investor in Tops. "It's a great use of the space, and it will expose us and everything we do to a different group of people."

Oppenheimer insisted that what most people might call the basement should be called "the lower level," because some of the stained glass work is done there. Visitors won't always have to walk through the "lower level," he said, because he has plans to cut another entrance to make access to Tops easier.

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